Cruise lines introduce ships big and small, and drop prices

LA Times | Travel

Vacationers who hit the high seas this year will find a treasure-trove of bargains -- and that's not all. At least 14 new ships, including the world's biggest behemoth and two intimate luxury vessels, plus innovative facilities and more U.S. departures, are on the way. Unlike your stock portfo...

By Jane Engle // 01.21.09

Vacationers who hit the high seas this year will find a treasure-trove of bargains -- and that's not all. At least 14 new ships, including the world's biggest behemoth and two intimate luxury vessels, plus innovative facilities and more U.S. departures, are on the way.

Unlike your stock portfolio and many businesses these days, cruising is a growing enterprise. Cruise Lines International Assn., the industry's largest North American organization, says its members expect to carry 13.5 million passengers this year, up from 13.2 million in 2008 and 12.6 million in 2007.

A few trends, such as more fees for onboard activities and dining, may inflict mal de mer on the budget-minded, and fans of American river cruising will mourn the decline of their small niche.

But overall, there's much to anticipate in 2009. A look at new and recent changes:

New pricing: Cruise fares went into free-fall after last year's stock market meltdown, so now deals abound. Berths for less than $100 per day, a benchmark for bargains, are not hard to find.

Besides fare discounts, some sailings come with free airfare, cabin upgrades, onboard credit and other money-saving extras. Many lines have relaxed deposit and cancellation rules, making it easier to get a refund if you decide not to go.

For the best deals, steer your shopping to older vessels, longer itineraries and distant destinations. New ships and departures from some U.S. ports can still command top dollar, said Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry newsletter based in Brookfield, Ill.

"The farther away you go, the more the rates have dropped," he said.

Look out for fees. Although fuel surcharges, which many big lines imposed last year, have been tossed overboard, new charges are floating in.

"We're seeing more a la carte pricing," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of a consumer information website.

Royal Caribbean International this month, for instance, began charging a $3.95 cabin service fee to deliver food between midnight and 5 a.m.

The line has also been testing a $14.95 surcharge for "premium" steak (say New York strip instead of Black Angus sirloin) in some dining rooms, but as of the Travel section's Tuesday deadline, it hadn't decided whether to make it permanent, spokeswoman Tracy Quan said.

New ships: Think big. Think small. Cruise lines are doing both this year as they put ships into service that were conceived in headier times.

The splashiest debut will be Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, which will sail the Caribbean out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for Royal Caribbean starting in December.

At 220,000 gross registered tons and space for a maximum of 6,296 guests, this oceangoing Hummer is about 40% bigger than any cruise ship afloat. And it comes fully loaded.

Guests can stroll through tropical foliage in an open-air Central Park, view water acrobatics and diving shows in a special amphitheater, ride a carousel and zoom down a zip line, among other amusements.

"It's the most innovative ship in my lifetime," said Spencer Brown, who took a shipyard tour in November.

But not the most intimate, of course. For devotees of smallish luxury vessels, the big news is that luxury lines Seabourn and Silversea are adding new builds, a rare event. The 450-passenger Seabourn Odyssey and 540-passenger Silver Spirit will emphasize cabin verandas and swanky spas.

Among bigger lines, notable 2009 debuts include the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream, with the line's largest spa, water slide and children's facilities; two ships from Costa Cruises and one from MSC Cruises, rapidly growing Italian rivals; and Celebrity Cruises' 2,850-passenger Equinox, sister to the Solstice, which made its debut last year and drew positive reviews for its stylish design, spa cabins, solarium and glass-blowing studio.

Now that the spotlight has moved on, it may be a good time to book last year's star ships. They include Holland America's Eurodam, the first in its new Signature class, with private cabanas to rent and spa staterooms; the Carnival Splendor, with a "sky dome" over the pool; and Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas, with its surfing simulator, boxing ring and ice-skating rink.

New places: For cruisers on a budget, there's no place like home. So let's start here.

"Home porting is a very big deal," Spencer Brown said.

Driving to your cruise instead of flying can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars, plus hours of hassle. And you'll have plenty of choices. Members of Cruise Lines International Assn. sail from more than 30 North American ports, and more than half of Americans live within driving distance of a port, the group said. Many places have added departures for 2009.

In February, the West Coast gets its biggest-ever home-port ship. Shifting from Caribbean service, Royal Caribbean's 3,114-passenger Mariner of the Seas will sail round trip from Los Angeles to Mexico, calling on Mazatlán, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta.

On the other hand, Disney Cruise Line, which made a splash with its Mexico sails out of Los Angeles last summer, has moved on; both of its ships will sail the Caribbean this year.

Aided by home-port convenience, the Caribbean is being rediscovered, Spencer Brown and Driscoll said, and Mexico's western coast, dubbed the Mexican Riviera, is also popular. The Baltic Sea region, which Disney will cruise in summer 2010, is a hit with veterans who have already "done" Europe, and it's a good family destination, Spencer Brown said.

South America, where fares have fallen steeply, is a smart choice for bargain-hunters who can spare a couple of weeks, Driscoll said. If you have more time, check out world cruises; most still have openings, he said.

Although Driscoll has his doubts, given the Mideast's instability, Brown said she sees the region as a cutting-edge destination. Dubai, which has pursued glitzy, ambitious tourist projects and is relatively insulated from the region's troubles, is a big draw; Royal Caribbean will deploy a ship there next winter.

"It's Vegas by the sea," Brown said. "People love it."

Shrinking niche: Talk about missing the boat. If you never set foot on the historic Delta Queen paddle-wheeler, you may not get the chance.

"River cruising in America has imploded," Brown said.

The Queen stopped sailing last year after Congress declined to renew its exemption from fire-safety laws. Its owner, Majestic America Line, which ran river cruises in the South, Midwest and Pacific Northwest, was put up for sale and stopped sailing. Citing rising costs and skimpy bookings, another company, RiverBarge Excursions, with offerings in the Midwest and South, suspended 2009 operations.

River cruising survives in several U.S. regions and Canada, and, of course, it thrives abroad, notably in Europe. Amawaterways and Uniworld, for instance, each will add two vessels this year to their world fleets. But rolling down the river remains a tough sell to Americans, especially younger adults.

New worries: Hurricanes, piracy and bankruptcies.

OK, bad weather isn't a new threat, and unlike a hotel or theme park, a ship can sail away from trouble. But the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season set records for consecutive storms that hit the U.S., and cruise reroutings and cancellations are no fun for customers. Think before you book in hurricane season.

Pirate attacks? As last year's aborted attempt on the Nautica in the Gulf of Aden showed, cruise ships are not immune to the raids that have plagued commercial shipping off Somalia and environs. But historically, attacks on cruise ships have been extremely rare.

More likely, given the shaky economy, are bankruptcies of cruise lines and travel agencies. Book with a credit card, and your deposits will get extra protection under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, which can help you get a refund if your ship's operator drowns in red ink.

Fortunately, it looks as if cruisers in 2009 are more apt to encounter bargains, fresh facilities and new adventures than trouble.